‘Coming to America’ at 25: How it became the most beloved black comedy of all time

theGRIO REPORT - On its milestone anniversary, the people behind the feature are reflecting on its imprint in cinematic history...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Music producer and Chic guitarist Nile Rodgers was brought on to score the film, and was challenged to create music that blended African roots with New York City grit.

He describes the film as an “evergreen African-American fairytale,” and the music as “massively diverse.”

From the “King’s Motorcade” to the classic 80’s commercial spoof “Soul-Glo,” the score included songs written by Rodgers along with tracks by Dr. Dre, Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, and Jackie Wilson.

“At this period in Eddie’s career, he was extremely popular for his street-smart urban American roles,” Rodgers recalls. “It was important to make his character believable from the first moment we see him. So, I brought in Ladysmith Black Mambazo to perform ‘Mbube’ in the Zulu language for the film’s opening music.”

‘His mamma name him Clay, I’mma call him Clay’

Many fans of Coming to America regard the barbershop scenes as the film’s most iconic moments.

Proving his comic virtuosity, Murphy played three characters at once, one of which was old, Jewish, and as pale as the snow falling on the New York avenue.

“My first day on the lot, John Landis and Eddie Murphy greeted me,” Rodgers recalls. “Eddie was made-up as the old Jewish man from the barbershop scenes. We all had a long conversation, and I had no idea it was Eddie until he screamed out, ‘Yo Nile, it’s Eddie, man!”

Photographer Bruce McBroom, who shot on the set of 16 Murphy movies, likewise describes the comedian’s methodology.

“Once Eddie looked in the mirror and owned this character and inhabited it, he was that way the whole time,” says McBroom. “The day that he came in as the grouchy old white man Saul, with this Yiddish accent from New York, if you bumped into him near craft service, he was an old grouchy white guy. He never breaks character. I’ve been there and heard people say, ‘Oh well, he seems to be in a bad mood.’ I’d say, ‘No, he’s not in a bad mood, he’s playing that man who’s in a bad mood.’”

Not only did Murphy have to pull additional weight for the scene (Hall also played two characters), he veered off script with his improvisations, making each take more difficult.

“Eddie doesn’t rehearse and Eddie doesn’t do a lot of takes,” McBroom comments. “He would take the lines, and change them or adlib knowing that the next day he would play the grouchy old white man or the other character. He would then have to think about how to respond to these lines that aren’t in the script that he had ad-libbed the day before. Then you multiply that again by the next day and the third character, and its mindboggling.”

A surprise sensation

While Murphy had already made it big, Coming to America provided a launching pad for other performers in the film. Hall was only beginning to gain attention as a talk show host, and actors Cuba Gooding Jr. and Garcelle Beauvais both made their big screen debuts.

“I was modeling at the time, and didn’t think about doing movies,” said Beauvais, who played a rose bearer in Zamunda. “It was a fun experience and I learned a lot by being on set and working with Eddie Murphy…It started my love for filmmaking.”

Few can forget James Earl Jones as the oblivious King Jaffe; John Amos as Cleo McDowell, a devoted but self-centered dad running a McDonald’s poser chain; Samuel L. Jackson, as a gun-toting thief at the restaurant; or Eriq La Salle as Darryl Jenks, the jheri-curl-sporting villain and Murphy’s romantic rival.

“I had a great experience and I’m proud to have been a part of such an iconic film,” La Salle said in a recent statement.

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Producer George Folsey Jr. says one of his favorite aspects of the film was the return of the Duke Brothers (Ralph Bellamy and Don Ameche), two commodities-brokers-turned-bankrupt fools from Trading Places. They made a surprise cameo appearance as homeless hustlers.

“They came in and shot that scene with the two of them underneath the newspapers and in the boxes under the Brooklyn Bridge, where it was like seven degrees,” Folsey recalls. “We just thought it would be a cute idea if they came back, and were the bums that Eddie Murphy gives money to. And then it turned out to be a really big deal.”

What may come a surprise, according to Belzberg, the movie was in post-production up until the day of its release; it was shot into May of that year and premiered six weeks later.

Consequently, the film wasn’t screened for critics, though none of the producers recall that being an intentional decision.

Regardless, it became one of the biggest hits of the year, opening in theaters on June 29, 1988, and grossing over $288 million worldwide in its run in theaters. It was a pay-off as grandiose as its little known kingdom in the Motherland.

“In my mind, if the audience comes to see your movie, then you’ve created something people can appreciate and really enjoy,” Belzberg points out.

Once and future king

As for The Nutty Professor himself, Coming to America gave Murphy an unprecedented amount of creative freedom and power in the entertainment business before he’d even hit age 30.

It established a standard where the actor could not only pilot a moneymaking picture, but experiment with comedic storytelling. He’s made over 30 films since.

Observes Folsey, “Really what it did was it cement his role as one of the top five movie stars in the business, and showed his versatility and his charm.”

Follow Courtney Garcia on Twitter at @courtgarcia